Can Food Influencers Survive a Pandemic?

Influencers were social media royalty; whether they were raising awareness for important causes or shaping the commercial landscape with sponsored posts, everyone wanted to be one of those paid accounts with loyal followers’ legion. Every industry has influencers that fit their niche: For restaurants, it was food influencers.

Since COVID-19, the landscape has completely changed. Influencers are no longer saturating feeds with sponsored content—in part because many brands are going out of business and don’t have the disposable funds to hire influencers in the first place, but also because “celebrity culture” as a whole is shifting…and not in their favor. For the food service industry especially, approximately half of all restaurants have permanently closed because of the virus and the rest remain in steep trouble. Food influencers are running out of businesses to promote.

What is a food influencer?

Restaurants are different from most other small businesses, because they provide service as well as a product, and none of it is mass produced. Fundamentally, their relationship with influencers differs too because they’re not necessarily trying to get people to try a new product line or specific item. Instead, food influencers post about good menus, delicious meals and positive experiences with the staff.

Restaurants and chefs love food influencers; they’re a quick, cost-effective way to get promoted on social media. Some influencers will do it for something as cheap as a free meal, which is an extremely inexpensive price point compared to traditional advertising methods like hiring a PR team or developing a more in-depth marketing campaign involving commercials or widespread internet ads.

Although well-established restaurants should consider influencer marketing in addition to more traditional forms of advertising, partnerships are great for getting your name out there when you’re first opening and need revenue but don’t have a lot, or any, income to spare. If you can get even one influencer to eat at your restaurant and make a video, picture or positive post, you can garner a massive amount of customers in a short amount of time for a relatively low cost.

Consider this on a micro scale: In June, Ariana Grande posted her support for a black-owned coffee shop. Within half an hour, they had 150 new customers lined up out the door. Although in most cases, you’ll work with smaller influencers who don’t garner quite as much attention (and especially in so short a time frame), this demonstrates just how powerful influence and privilege can be.

Where do they stand after COVID-19?

The coronavirus pandemic’s onset had an interesting impact on celebrity culture as we know it, forever changing the landscape of influencer marketing as a result.

Consumers have been questioning who’s speaking, what they’re saying and whether they’ve “earned” the respect and power that their massive platforms afford them. Who gets to speak? What do they really have to say? Is it meaningful?

More and more, people are looking for authenticity and message; they want to hear something that’s useful to them, beneficial to others or uplifting marginalized communities—especially during COVID-19, when so many people are struggling. Anyone who wants to help needs a reliable way to determine where they should put their attention. If an influencer is promoting a skin rejuvenator, their fans are going to ask: Why are you showing me this when I lost my job and don’t have the disposable income for luxury nonessentials? Why this instead of promoting businesses owned by marginalized individuals? What are you doing to help struggling people in the community? How can we raise awareness for people in a financial bind because of COVID-19? How can we connect with others looking to build a better world?

As the conversation begins to shift toward tearing down ineffective systems and dismantling racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic and classist power structures, consumers have also started to notice how those systemic institutions manifest in disparity on the micro-level. There’s severe racial disparity baked into influencer culture itself—even amongst celebrity foodies. Consider the recent scandal that rocked the popular show Bon Appétit, when chefs of color reported lesser pay and blanket tokenization at the hands of producers and their white costars. They were used as the lone voice of their culture and underpaid, undervalued and dismissed despite that. People are beginning to notice. How can you accurately critique systems of marginalization without mentioning how you’re directly benefiting from them? Celebrity culture is changing at its core.

That’s not to say that influencers have lost all their—well, their influence, as the reaction to Ariana Grande’s public support demonstrates neatly. Nonetheless, if consumers stop listening to micro-influencers and nano-influencers then restaurants don’t have any incentive to hire them. What good is a platform if nobody cares what you have to say?

From the merchant perspective, there’s more undermining food influencers besides waning audience support. COVID-19 has made funds extremely tight. The pandemic hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, as being designated a “nonessential” business means subjection to forced closures and legislation dictating how many customers they can serve. They’re pulling in less revenue than usual across the board—and they already operated on thin profit margins before all this went down.

As many as half of all restaurants have had to close, and many more face the same fate because they can’t open, either for legal or moral reasons against doing so. There hasn’t been sufficient federal aid to assist them, either. Few restaurants received PPP loans, and those that did found that the money didn’t stretch as far as they hoped. Restaurants are going under all around the U.S., and they can’t afford to comp anybody’s meal even if they had the network to reach out to food influencers right now. Even cheap labor is too expensive now.

Can food influencers save themselves?

Many are already trying. Some have chosen to proactively help out restaurants for free, offering advice and pro bono promotion just because they genuinely love the food there or want to support these businesses. Many influencers lost their income streams thanks to COVID-19, whether because fewer businesses wanted to hire them or because they had outside jobs that laid them off too. Now food influencers want to show the restaurants that supported them that it wasn’t just a financial relationship to them; it wasn’t just a job. They actually support these businesses and want to see them recover.

There’s a few ways to demonstrate that sentiment, but the best method is to completely shift the focus and target of the ads that get published about these restaurants. Rather than posting a quick photo of the storefront and telling followers to try the place out, influencers are beginning to actually highlight aspects of the business that they personally love: The food, the chef, the atmosphere. Something genuine that lets their followers—and restaurant management—know that they actually, truly valued their experience and that it’s a worthwhile investment for their followers to dine there.

Influencers are already realizing that they need to change their strategy—because what worked before coronavirus won’t fly moving forward. People are exhausted from constant advertisements for things that they don’t want or won’t like, simply because the influencer got a hefty paycheck for the post. Similarly, restaurants need more creative ads that will actually drive consumer engagement. Interesting, out-of-the-box ideas like sharing recipes every Tuesday or promoting a favorite takeout spot for a Friday treat will encourage followers to adopt those same habits into their lives—and can mean a new loyal customer moving forward.

Personal relationships are the only ones that will continue to thrive between restaurants and food influencers. Someone trying to exploit the struggling industry for clicks or a quick paycheck will be quickly noticed and ostracized, whereas influencers who genuinely help to uplift restaurants right now are more respected. Likewise, restaurants need to alter how they approach new partnerships. Finding the right influencer to tell your story will do more for your business than a random photo that doesn’t say much about who you are as a business; and even simply choosing influencers with a specific skill set, like video-making, will give your ad the boost it needs to stand out from the sea of other restaurants trying to catch that same attention.

The relationship between food influencers and restaurants need to change. Transparency and honesty between partners will be evident in those ads, conveying that same trust and genuineness to their audience. Consistency also matters when forging these new relationships, as it opens the door for true humanity as well as a sense of community. Consumers are looking to support businesses that help others who are struggling, support reform for current ineffective legislation, or contribute to their neighbors in some other, meaningful way. Cultivating that sense of community starts with your partnerships.

Ultimately, we need to equalize influencer culture and the restaurant industry as a whole. People have noticed the systems of inequality that plague our society, and reform has to happen on all levels or the system will never change. It starts at home: More influencers need to support restaurants owned by POC, and more restaurants need to contract with influencers of color too. Restaurants and influencers have to work together to bridge inequality, not exacerbate it—they need to, for either group to survive this pandemic intact.

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